As a result, while the Explorer looks like a tough, non-nonsense, off-road truck, the Mountaineer looks like a Mercury. It's certainly attractive, but despite its machined-billet front end, it tends more toward country club sleek than off-road robust.
Mountaineer was extensively updated for 2006, with a redesigned frame and suspension; a new and more powerful V8; and an even newer six-speed automatic transmission.
At the same time, a heavily reworked interior enhanced user-friendliness. In fact, there is much here to love. The dash is trimmer, more elegant, and communicates essential information cleanly. Multi-adjustable front seats make for comfortable commutes. Passengers consigned to the third-row seats enjoy more legroom than their counterparts in other, seven-passenger SUVs in the class. The interior door handles are awkward, however.
2007 models bring subtle but significant improvements: Most notably, Ford's sophisticated Safety Canopy side-curtain airbags come standard on all Mountaineers, joining a long list of safety features that includes AdvanceTrac stability control with Roll Stability Control and adaptive driver and front-passenger air bags. A heated windshield that dramatically decreases de-icing time is now available on all models, and we recommend it for cold climates. The rear-seat DVD entertainment system now comes with a larger, eight-inch screen. And all Mountaineers now come with a standard auxiliary audio input jack.
Mercury Mountaineer ($27,300); AWD ($29,575); Premier ($30,365); Premier AWD ($32,640)
For 2007, the only visual distinction we could find from the 2006 model is the availability of three new colors: White Chocolate Clearcoat Tri-Coat (Premier only), Dark Cherry Clearcoat Metallic, and Alloy Clearcoat Metallic. In every other way, the 2007 Mountaineer looks exactly like the 2006 Mountaineer, which was itself only subtly changed from the 2005 model. Standard wheels are 17 inches with 18-inch wheels optional.
Cladding covers the lower door panels. A wide C-pillar separates the rear side doors from the rear quarter windows. Crisp-looking side mirrors are said to improve both aerodynamics and visibility, but we found them only average for rearview visibility. No rearview camera is available, an unfortunate omission that would make backing this big SUV safer and easier.
Premier's optional powered running boards tuck away beneath the rocker panels, extending only when the doors are open. Used on the Lincoln Navigator, they seem a bit out of place on the smaller Mountaineer but make it easier for shorter folks to get in and out.
The two-piece liftgate features a separately hinged glass window, which lets you load groceries through the window. The taillights wear clear lenses, with the requisite red glow appearing when brakes are applied or running lights turned on.
The stereo and climate controls use large, friendly buttons. The stereo and navigation system operate on separate power supplies, so you can have a map displayed without having the stereo on. That's not true of all navigation systems, including those from Mercedes-Benz. But the radio tuning function is buried beneath a sequential rocker switch, forcing you to wait while it scrolls up or down through the frequency band to find any station that hasn't already been pre-set. The navigation system screen could be larger, but the information it provides is adequate, and accuracy is above average.
We like the look of some of the light-colored interiors, though we're concerned they'll get dirty. The light-colored, suede-like inserts attract dirt like a magnet and, once dirtied, are a hassle to spruce up. The 2007 model we tested had a light interior and the almost-white fabric trim was looking dingy with just 7,500 hard miles on the clock.
The front seats are comfortable, with adequate thigh support and bolsters. Overall, passenger roominess is competitive for the class. The Mountaineer offers comparable headroom in the front seats to the 2007 GMC Envoy and Nissan Pathfinder, trailing them by less than an inch; front-seat legroom betters the Envoy by an inch and equals the Pathfinder; front-seat hiproom is almost identical.
Second-row headroom and legroom is comparable to Envoy, but the Mountaineer offers a significant 2.5 inches more legroom than Pathfinder. That's a noticeable difference. However, Mountaineer doesn't have nearly as much second-row hiproom as the Envoy and Pathfinder do. The middle-row bench seat has full seatbelts for three but head restraints for only the outboard passengers.
The third-row seats in the Mountaineer are significantly roomier than those in the competition, beating Pathfinder for legroom by nearly seven inches. Envoy no longer offers seven-passenger seating for 2007, but beats the big GMC Acadia car-based crossover for third-row legroom by nearly two inches. For third-row headroom and hiproom, Mountaineer fits between Acadia and Pathfinder. Mountaineer's manual folding third row is a bench with minimal padding and fixed-height head restraints, which loom large in the back window; they do collapse, but only by tugging a loop hanging out the backside. Much better are the optional third-row seats that can be power-folded via two rocker buttons in the left rear quarter panel, directly below a thoughtfully provided button for the power central locking. The third row folds perfectly flat for a nice, even cargo floor.
Accessing the third row is a three-step process that doesn't strike us as all that secure. First, you pull a strap that releases the second-row head restraints so they fold forward. Then you pull up on a stiff lever to fold the seatback down on the seat bottom. And then you lift the heavy seat assembly, rocking it forward toward the front seats, where it parks, unrestrained, while people crawl into and out of the third row seats. When I leaned on it while climbing out, it rocked back, almost dropping into place, which would have put it smack on top of my foot.
Cargo space: The Mountaineer offers only 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seats. Fold down the third row and Mountaineer trails Pathfinder and Acadia. With both back rows of seats folded, the Mountaineer prevails over Pathfinder by about 4.5 cubic feet. The big Acadia dominates the class, with nearly 120 cubic feet in total cargo mode, but Mountaineer edges out the GMC Envoy, 83.7 cubic fee
The standard V6 engine is rated 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It comes with a five-speed automatic transmission.
Mercury told us that the stronger frame that started with the 2006 model, combined with a revised front suspension and a new, trailing-link rear suspension, would produce a firmer, more controlled ride. Firmer, maybe, but we didn't feel any improvement in control. The latest Mountaineer tracks relatively well on level, straight roads, but leans in corners almost as much as 2005 and earlier models. Likewise, when pushed in corners, it plows as readily as any top-heavy SUV. Steering response felt a bit crisper than in older models, but we can't say how much this was attributable to changes in the suspension, or to the marginally larger footprint from the lower-profile tires. In short, it handles like the truck that it is and not as well as the latest car-based crossover SUVs such as the Ford Edge.
The all-wheel drive is quite competent in snow and rain. It's probably nearly as good as the GMC Envoy off road, but can't go everywhere the Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota 4Runner or Lexus GX can go.
At speed on pavement, there's some wind noise, but not enough to detract from the stereo and road noise is muted.
The 2007 Mercury Mountaineer offers a comfortable ride along with the towing capability of a truck-based SUV. The Mountaineer feels more sure-footed than the GMC Envoy. The accommodations are nice overall and the Mountaineer offers lots of utility. As an alternative to a car for hauling passengers, however, it's neither as smooth nor as comfortable, and certainly not as efficient as the latest car-based crossover SUVs, such as the Ford Edge.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard contributed to this report.